Siesta Isles Association wins appeal over Sarasota County staff’s stop-work order on tree removal

Commissioners ask staff to work on a way to prevent future, similar situations involving one department giving the go-ahead for a project and then a second department stopping that undertaking

Tony Romans. News Leader photo
Tony Romanus. News Leader photo

Not only did the Sarasota County Commission grant the appeal of a Siesta Key homeowners group regarding its efforts to remove and replace trees to beautify two entrances to its neighborhood, but the board last week also unanimously called for a staff review of the county’s Trees Code to prevent similar situations in the future.

“This is just government at its finest right now,” Commissioner Christine Robinson said sarcastically after Tony Romanus, president of the Siesta Isles Association, made his Dec. 8 presentation to the board as part of the appeal. “There’s not much else to say,” she added.

As Romanus explained it, all the organization wanted to do was take out eight existing trees and replace them with 10 new ones. A day after the work began, county staff called a halt to it, he told the board. The reason: The association had not obtained the necessary permit for removal of the trees, in spite of the fact the group had signed a contract with the county reflecting its award of $10,000 through the county’s Neighborhood Grant Program. The funds were to remodel the landscaping in the right of way medians on Shadow Lawn Way and Beach Way Drive, a staff memo noted.

The purpose of the grant program is to enhance the environment, character and property values of neighborhoods, Jane Grogg, manager of the county’s Neighborhood Services office, explained to the commissioners. County staff helps applicants with resources, such as assistance in determining the appropriate Florida-friendly plants for landscaping and potential permitting requirements, she said.

A staff photo shows the existing trees along Shadow Lawn Way. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A staff photo shows the existing trees along Shadow Lawn Way. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A county photo shows the entrance to Siesta Isles on Beach Way Drive. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A county photo shows the entrance to Siesta Isles on Beach Way Drive. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In Siesta Isles’ case, she continued, the application was reviewed for the landscaping requirements, but the association’s plan to remove eight trees and replace them with 10 royal palms “was missed until the project was ready to [begin].”

However, she said, the contract does say, “Grantee hereby assumes all responsibility for any permitting that may be necessary according to County codes.”

Howard Berna. File photo
Howard Berna. File photo

Howard Berna, the county’s environmental permitting manager, added that the Siesta Isles plan did not conform with the Trees Code’s provisions for removal. The association wanted to take out seven trees along the right of way on Shadow Lawn Way — two coconut palms, four black olive trees and one Senegal date palm — plus a solitary cabbage palm on Beach Way Drive, he pointed out.

The Trees Code includes six criteria for the county to grant a permit for removal of a tree, Berna explained. Among them: A tree poses a safety hazard to pedestrians or vehicular traffic; a tree prevents access to a lot; the location of a tree prevents development of a lot; and a tree is diseased to the point where it has lost most of its function and therefore poses a danger to persons, property or utilities.

“Staff came to the conclusion that [removal of] the existing trees in the rights of way [was] not justified by those criteria,” Berna told the board. Therefore, staff halted the Siesta Isles’ efforts to take out those trees.

“Isn’t there some way we could categorize [the Siesta Isles plan] as a tree replacement?” Vice Chair Al Maio asked. “Is there a clever way to fix this?”

“We thought of options and came to the conclusion that it would be a decision for the five of you,” Berna replied.

“That’s the clever way,” Chair Carolyn Mason said, prompting ripples of laughter in the Commission Chambers in Venice.

“For now, I’ll just be quiet and try to be more clever,” Maio added.

Referring to the six criteria for tree removal, Commissioner Charles Hines asked whether a seventh one exists: “replaced with like or better trees.”

“No,” Berna responded, as more laughter ensued. “[In] invisible ink, maybe.”

Residents make their case

Mason told her colleagues she had cards signed by four people who wanted to address the board on the matter.

The first was Romanus, who thanked the commissioners for their support of the Neighborhood Grant Program (see the related story in this issue). “It’s been an interesting process to navigate the grant application, including this appeal,” he added, noting that Berna and Mark McClintock, a county environmental specialist, “have been very helpful and very professional.”

A graphic shows the neighborhood and the two entryways designated for improvements. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A graphic shows the neighborhood and the two entryways designated for improvements. Image courtesy Sarasota County

About a year ago, Romanus continued, the association’s board agreed to proceed with an initiative to enhance the five entrances to the neighborhood, which has 297 homes. “Because we have a very limited budget, we decided to break the project into multiple phases,” he noted.

The goal is to erect new signs and put in Florida-friendly landscaping, a micro-irrigation system and new LED lighting. “We want to create an upscale coastal image which is consistent across all five [entrances],” he told the board.

He then provided a timeline for the steps in the grant process. On May 29, he said, the grant advisory committee members agreed the association’s proposal met the criteria for funding, and on Aug. 25, the County Commission formally approved the grant. On Sept. 2, he continued, he received a letter from the county, authorizing the work. Romanus noted that the removal of the current plants in the landscaping began on Sept. 21. The following day, he added, “the environmental permitting folks asked us to stop the tree removal.”

Referencing Hines’ earlier comment, Romanus said, “There’s no Item No. 7 in [the Trees Code’s removal criteria]. … However, [staff’s] position is clearly contrary to the purpose and spirit for which you established the tree ordinance and the Neighborhood Grant Program.”

The contractor the association hired for the work planned to re-sell seven of the eight trees targeted for removal, he pointed out. Given the fact that the initiative called for the planting of 10 new trees, he said, the result would have been a total of 17 trees for the county.

Moreover, Romanus noted, the Neighborhood Grant Program is designed to improve the environment, and the eight trees the association wanted to remove are designated either invasive species or types that should be used with caution.

Jane Grogg. News Leader photo
Jane Grogg. News Leader photo

“When we filed our grant application,” he told the board, “we were very clear in showing what we planned to do.” He added, “But now the county staff says it made a mistake” — that the wrong department approved the design. “We dealt with the only department we were told to deal with,” he said.

It seemed the county was telling his association, “‘Gotcha,’” Romanus continued: “You can’t have the permit, and you can’t build the beautification project because the trees you showed in your plan can’t be planted there.”

He also took issue with statements of the environmental permitting staff that the royal palms could become a vehicular or pedestrian hazard “when large fronds fall,” he said. “They want us to keep coconut palms … How is it that a royal palm frond is more dangerous than a coconut palm frond, especially when coconuts are also falling?”

If royal palms “presented a significant safety hazard,” Romanus pointed out, “our developers would not be using them in so many locations.”

He and other full-time residents of Siesta Isles had been looking forward to having two improved entryways to the neighborhood this year for returning snowbirds, Romanus said. “Unfortunately, because of the stop work order, [those] two main entrances have been in disarray for over two months.”

The three other speakers — all residents of Siesta Isles — voiced support for Romanus.

Marion Kristlibas pointed out that residents had been donating their time and money to the project.

“I just hope you will see it our way,” Gail Wroldsen told the board.

The board’s votes

Vice Chair Al Maio. Photo courtesy Sarasota County
Vice Chair Al Maio. Photo courtesy Sarasota County

After Mason closed the public hearing, Maio made the motion to reverse the staff decision, allowing the association to pursue a tree removal permit.

Maio praised Berna, McClintock and Grogg. Nonetheless, he said, “This is just one of those situations when the best of intentions starts flying in the face of different rules for different departments,” adding that it was not a negative reflection upon the county employees involved in the matter.

Commissioner Paul Caragiulo, who seconded the motion, commended Romanus and the residents for the presentation of the facts.

“I don’t disagree with Commissioner Maio,” Robinson said, “but I would say our fine employees should have brought back a fix for this [in the Trees Code.” She added, “I don’t believe that this should have just been put on the agenda like this.”

“I fully support the motion,” Hines said. Concurring with Robinson, he added, “I want our staff to feel empowered enough to bring things forward when you have these problems. … A fix should have come with this.”

After the unanimous vote to reverse the decision, Robinson made a motion to ask County Administrator Tom Harmer to work with staff to determine whether changes can be made in the Trees Code to maintain protections for trees but “to apply common sense to situations like this.”

Caragiulo seconded that motion as well, which also passed unanimously.

“I jokingly [talked] about a No. 7 [in the criteria for allowing tree removal],” Hines said. Perhaps such an item could be put in the code, he suggested, allowing existing trees to be replaced with similar or more desirable species.